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This Week's Question: Early Season Impressions
With the regular season underway, share your first impressions of the team.
Heading into Thursday's early season rematch against the Blackhawks, the Lightning have a chance to split the four games it will have played already against the two teams that that played for the Stanley Cup last season. The Lightning are 5-1-0 against teams not named the Boston Bruins and, at 5-3-0 overall, have a chance to finish the home stand with, ideally, 14 of the first 20 points possible but even coming away with 12 points before closing out this lengthy home stand against Buffalo and hitting the road again would be impressive, especially when you factor in how short a time this coaching staff and much of this roster has spent together at this level. If Tampa Bay can average 12 points over 20 point stretches the rest of the way, the club will find itself in a very sound position come the end of the regular season.
There has, of course, been some warts along the way: being soundly outplayed most of the match and having to mount an improbable road comeback in Chicago and letting emotions run high and taking what proved to be costly penalties in the tilt against Pittsburgh comes to mind, as does the most recent test against Boston, where the Bolts unraveled after a spoiled what was actually a pretty good start to the middle frame which saw the Bolts earn several scoring chances. The possession game has been something of a mixed bag to this point, too, but this isn't altogether surprising given the gauntlet -- 4 of the 6 opponents faced made the playoffs last season -- the club has had to run in the early going. The collective impression I've been left with, on the balance, is very much positive.
A few other thoughts: Valtteri Filppua, ignoring the production he's provided so far, has given the team a reliable puck-handler to navigate all three zones and has proven as versatile -- able to play effectively in any role he's been tasked with -- as advertised. And lest anybody forget, the Lightning are operating with seven skaters in their regular lineup (Killorn, Gudas, Johnson, Labrie, Palat, Panik and Sustr) who have played less than 50 games at the NHL level (201 in aggregate), six of whom (all except Labrie) are under 25 years old. Kudos to this sizable contingent of young NHLers, who've helped provide some offensive balance by chipping in a collective 6 goals and 13 assists with most playing key minutes in all game situations. Put simply, the kids have been quite alright.
The Lightning are exhibiting many characteristics of a team that can be sustainably good: trusted goaltending, team defense, power play success, health. Ben Bishop has been excellent, but consistency is always the key. As is typical for Jon Cooper team, forwards are coming back deeper in the zone than they were under Guy Boucher, which is contributing to a decrease in scoring chances against the Lightning. The power play has been good outside of the two failed 5 on 3's early against Boston, though the penalty kill needs some work. The Lightning are getting solid, if unspectacular contributions so far from Ryan Malone and Sami Salo, who have been bitten by injury bugs in the past. Those two must remain healthy as the Lightning don't have anyone under their respective player types who can provide what they do at the same level. Connolly is not a power forward and Sustr doesn't have a bajillion games of NHL experience like Salo. My thought was Tampa Bay would be a 7-10 seed this season and right now they're trending up. Of course, they started last season on a high note, too. Consistency is key.
The Lightning didn’t have the opportunity to ease into the 2013-14 campaign. Having already played the Boston Bruins (twice), Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Los Angeles Kings, the Lightning have had the chance to test their skills against some of the league’s best. If someone had come to you a month ago and told you that the Lightning would compile a 5-3-0 record to start the season with that schedule, you probably would have been a very happy fan.
Aside from one bad game against the Bruins, the Lightning have managed to remain more than competitive with teams that are considered Stanley Cup contenders. With victories in the books against the Blackhawks and Kings, and a couple of strong performances against the Penguins and Bruins, it’s clear that this Tampa Bay Lightning team has what it takes to be competitive in the Atlantic Division. The challenge now is making sure that the good habits stick around until April, and hopefully beyond.
To use a single word to describe my reaction to the Lightning’s start this season, it’s “restrained.” 5-3-0 (as of this writing) is nice; they’ve played some very tough opponents and some very weak opponents… But it’s early still, and that’s the ultimate factor. By the end of November we’ll have a better sample to judge the team from. I’m pleased, and we’re seeing good things, but last time I got over-excited about this team’s start, it was last winter. I think we all know how that turned out.
As for the “Flortheast” and where the Bolts are in the division, I think it’s right where they’re supposed to be – better than some teams, and not-ready-for-prime-time against others. Of course, TB has only played three of the seven other Atlantic Division teams head-to-head, and that’s all I’m gauging on. The challenge still remains how well the Bolts play against the Canadian teams and Detroit, as Boston has proved twice they’re the better team while Florida and Buffalo are trying to piece themselves together.